Trump,Putin and Asia

December 5, 2016

Trump,Putin  and Asia

by Artyom Lukin@ Far Eastern Federal University

The US vote in favour of President-elect Donald Trump was a shock for Russian leaders, though a delightful one. According to public opinion surveys, Russia was the only country in the world that preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton. Post-election, the Kremlin argued that Trump and Putin’s views on major issues were very close and expressed cautious optimism that Russia–US relations could improve. In turn, Trump has repeatedly said that he would like ‘to get along with Russia’.

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Putin and Trump seem to have chemistry absent in the Russian leader’s relations with both current US President Barack Obama and with Hillary Clinton. Trump is a pragmatic deal-maker, not an ideologue. He is not going to call Russia out on democracy or human rights. If Clinton had won, confrontation with Russia would have continued, and may have even escalated considering that Clinton’s foreign policy entourage included many figures with strong anti-Russia and anti-Putin views. Trump does not have any preconceived notions about Russia. He is therefore more likely to succeed in making a fresh start with Moscow — or at least in avoiding dangerous clashes in places like Ukraine and Syria.

But most importantly, the  incoming Trump administration has a fairly good chance of getting along with Russia because of the president-elect’s foreign policy philosophy.

Trump is keen to scale back the United States’ international commitments in order to concentrate resources on domestic priorities. Putting the United States’ own house in order is much more important to him — and, it seems, to his supporters — than performing the role of global policeman.

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Trump’s views appear to be close to offshore balancing, a concept promoted by American realist thinkers such as Christopher Layne and Steven Walt. The offshore balancing grand strategy calls for eschewing costly onshore commitments and getting other states to do more for their own security.

Offshore balancing emphasises that the current US policy of maintaining global primacy is unsustainable because it can lead to imperial overstretch. Instead, it envisions a multipolar system in which the United States will still be the strongest player, although not a preponderant and overbearing one. Offshore balancing also stresses that the United States’ comparative strategic advantages rest in naval and air power. This is very much in line with Trump’s stated desire to build up the US naval forces.

If Trump follows at least some precepts of offshore balancing, this will relieve much of the current tensions in US–Russia relations. After all, a multi-polar world is exactly what Russia wants. Moscow may even agree to grant Washington the status of ‘first among equals’, provided Russia is given due respect as a great power. If Trump shifts military investments from the continental theatres of Europe and the Middle East toward the naval theatre of East Asia, this will only please Moscow. Historically, Russia has seen its main security concerns as lying to the west and south of its borders. The Asia Pacific is still of secondary importance.

If the Trump administration avoids lecturing Moscow on democracy (which is very likely) and strikes a grand bargain with the Kremlin on Ukraine and Syria (which is less likely but still possible), that would usher in a period of rapprochement in US–Russia relations.

But the most interesting question in all of this is: what impact will the Russian–US détente have on Russia’s ‘strategic partnership’ with China? Since 2012, ties between Moscow and Beijing have been expanding and deepening, especially in the political–military domain. Russo–Chinese alignment has mostly been driven by shared opposition to the United States, which they accuse of hegemonic pretensions and suspect of seeking to subvert their political regimes.

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Moscow’s estrangement from the West in the wake of the Ukraine crisis has made it increasingly dependent on Beijing — and deferent to Chinese interests in East Asia. But if Moscow normalises relations with Washington, it will be less interested in pursuing a far-reaching entente with China. This will remove the risk of the Asia-Pacific being divided into two camps: the Beijing–Moscow axis versus Washington and its allies. The Sino–Russian partnership will continue, but it will shed much of its current anti-US overtones, with the emphasis shifting to economics and trade. Moscow will feel less obligated to support China on contentious issues in East Asia, such as the South China Sea.

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Russia will also act as a more independent and proactive player on the Korean peninsula. It is an open secret that Moscow’s harsh protestations against the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea were caused not by immediate concerns about its impact on Russian security, but rather at the behest of Beijing. On the North Korea issue, Russia is interested in the resumption of the Six Party Talks, which may be possible if Trump decides to reopen a dialogue with Pyongyang. With relations between Beijing and Pyongyang marked by growing distrust, Russia is now the only neighbour with whom North Korea remains on more or less friendly terms, which could enable Moscow to play a mediating role.

The Trump victory will also affect Russia’s relations with Japan. The stark fact that US alliances can no longer be considered ‘ironclad’ has now been laid bare. Even though Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to be granted an audience with the president-elect, Japan is unlikely to regain full confidence in the alliance. This makes it imperative for Tokyo to look for more partners in order to hedge against a rising China. Russia is one obvious choice. After the Trump win, we may expect Prime Minister Abe to re-double his efforts to court Putin.

Artyom Lukin is Associate Professor at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok.

7 thoughts on “Trump,Putin and Asia


    It is clear what my President Elect has in mind in the order he gave calls to various East Asian leaders. My prayer is that there is wisdom to people of the three nations (China Japan Korea) to come to their senses against a not so benevolent POTUS. In any case, I am glad offshore balancing is taking place today now.

    At times like this, I am still at awe why and how forgiveness come about. But, when it comes, it is just simply so beautiful. It is always there.

  2. Like I had said, Trump will have his work cut out to set the house in order.

    But being a business man keen to seize an opportunity when a profit is there to be made and to keep the Industrial Military Complex folks happy, he may stir the hornet’s nest just enough to jack up arms sales, notably to Uncle Sam’s Far Eastern client states.

  3. Without a question, it is still early to predict the exact trajectory of Trump’s actual policy in office, given his penchant for policy equivocation and tendency for self-contradiction. Doubts over Trump’s temperament, judgment, experience, and commitment to the global order could encourage a growing number of Asian nations to reconsider their relations with Washington.

    In the beginning of his presidential campaign Donald Trump emphasized that one of Barack Obama’s biggest mistakes was to “drive Russia and China together.” These are very interesting words that point to a fundamental reality of US foreign policy. The fear of a world where China and Russia stand arm in arm, with economies independent of western banking institutions, is nothing new. The question then arises whether driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing will become Trump’s foreign policy imperative.

    I believe Trump may try to involve Russia in its fold, simultaneously exerting pressure on Beijing. His planned phone conversation with the leader of Taiwan recently is all indication that he is going to confront China head on. To untie its hands in Asia-Pacific, Trump may try to reach a compromise with Russia on Syria and Ukraine and even lift some of the sanctions imposed on Moscow. However, at the same time, the situation in the Asia-Pacific region will become much more explosive.

    I believe such a strategy won’t work, given the Russo-Chinese mutual geopolitical interests in Eurasia. Russia won’t change its foreign strategy course because of the US’s policy shift. Putin needs to integrate his pet project the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with the Chinese One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative in order to succeed. Likewise, Kazakhstan, a major part of EEU, also needs to integrate its Nurly Zholplar, or “Way of Light” project, with the OBOR initiative to succeed.

    Trump is going to screw up America’s relations with the rest of the world with his twitter style foreign policy. Now wonder Putin thinks The POTUS-Elect will be good for Russia. The egoist Trump thinks he is the smartest guy ever to be President. I think American voters deserve what they are getting in The White House; they do not learn from what they did by putting G.W. Bush in power for 8 years. America as a world power is in decline; your new man is not going to make America great again.Good luck my friend. I wonder what our Condi Rice thinks of the new National Security Advisor and Rudy, Bolton or Mitt (The Quaker) as Secretary of State.–Din Merican

  4. The EEU does not need OBOR, but OBOR needs EEU’s acquiescence.
    That’s obvious as Russia is not Xi’s poodle.
    Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev and the other Gostan countries will follow Russia’s lead.

    And yes, Trump is playing a high stakes game of Poker with both N.Korea and the Second Island Chain Policy as part of the bargaining chip. PRC is not the only target, and i believe that it’s gonna be a lower Luke-Warm War of attrition in MENA and a Warmer Economic War in the SCS and NE Asia. Forget about pivoting encirclement as Obama-Clinton envisaged, but actual presence of US-Nato-ANZAC forces floating around.

  5. Din:
    What can I say, my friend? We are banged. The land of the free and the home of the brave is very ill. But in all fairness, the decline of America started way before Trump. I say it started with Bill Clinton. But Trump is going to accelerate it. I just wish he drop dead soon. Sorry, it is not gentlemanly for me to say that, though gentleman I always try to be.

    It makes me shit my pants with all the nominees in Trump’s cabinet, except Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation. Mad Dog will definitely start or find some war somewhere to fight. Steve Mnuchin will bring our treasury into open bankruptcy, not that our treasury is not already bankrupt but it is not in the open yet. He is awarded the position for his loyalty but he is not qualified. But Elaine is an exceptional woman. I know her in the International Leadership Foundation but I have little interaction with her. I prefer to sit with Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong movie star, whenever we have a gathering and I would tease him throughout the night. He is really funny.

    I have not seen Condi for quite some time. I have not been to the San Francisco Golf Club for more than a year. Lately I hang around the Olympic Club more as my friends prefer the food there and the golf course is more challenging. The last time I saw Condi was almost two years ago. Had a glass of wine with her and chatted. She did not say it but she gave me the impression that she is, like me, deeply disappointed with how the party is going. All we can do is to stay far from the madding crowd.

    Yes, I agree, America is f*cked. I can’t say it is the American people who put an egoistic, narcissistic and obnoxious idiot in the White House. Actually, the majority of the people prefer the corrupt, greedy and wicked bitch. But the presidential election game is to win the votes of the Electoral College, which system is obsolete and long due for reform. They say, if it is not broken, why fix it? Now that it is broken, when are we going to fix it? And when are we going to be fair to allow all presidential candidates to debate along with the ones from the two major parties, so that the people can get to know them better and have better choices?

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